Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Fear and injury at Atlanta 1996

Between Barcelona and Atlanta, I spent three and a half years honing my singles talent to be able to mount a challenge on that Olympic podium. I worked on my physical fitness and found ways to increase my patience to cope with the long rallies. The venue for the tennis tournament in Atlanta was at a high altitude, and it could get very hot and humid as well. I played a lot of tournaments in Brazil and other parts of Latin America, and even places in America, like Colorado. Gradually, my game and my body grew accustomed to those climatic conditions.

Physically and mentally, I was ready to head to Atlanta. I was in peak performance mode and had done really well in the Davis Cup for India as well as on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour. My Dad believed I could win it and so did my first Davis Cup captain, Naresh Kumar. I remember telling Uncle Naresh as a sixteen-year-old that I would win the Wimbledon Junior title. He had smiled and clapped my shoulder. I won that title, and he knew then that if I set my mind on something, it would eventually work out. I told Uncle Naresh I would win a medal in Atlanta and he told me he would look forward to receiving me and the medal at Kolkata airport.

I landed in Atlanta, brimming with confidence. I ensured that every single thing on every single day was done professionally. I created my own little environment around me which got me to perform at my best. The opening ceremony took on a completely different meaning for me when I saw one of my heroes, Muhammad Ali, light the Olympic flame. I had a feeling, somehow, that this was my calling.

Every single day, I played with a purpose and things fell into place. After my second round match, I met Ali as well. He wasn’t seen much in public due to his battle with Parkinson’s, but he was there at the Athletes Village, and I went up to him and shook his hand.

The only time my mask slipped was when that bomb went off in Centennial Park. My parents, my team and I were all inside the park when it happened. We were about 30–40 feet away and we were rattled by the vibrations. Chairs and tables had fallen all around us, and my ears were ringing. I struggled with my hearing for the next twenty-four hours. Dad had been in Munich when the unfortunate incident happened with the Israeli team, and he had lived through that entire episode. He just took command. He had the presence of mind to order me back into the Village at once, and got everyone else on a train before the authorities locked everything down. We could not comprehend what was going on at that moment, but when I reached the entrance to the Village, the gate had shut. I pleaded with the guards to let me in and showed them my credentials. I told them my parents had gone home and public transport had been shut down. I had nowhere to go. The poor guards were only following orders not to allow anyone in and they asked me to find another gate that might be open.

I sprinted all the way to the next gate but got the same result. One gate to the other, and it was probably at the fifth gate that I managed to literally beg the guard to let me in. I told him I had been at the park when the bomb went off, and he was really humble and sweet, and had the presence of mind to let an Olympic athlete in. I slowly walked all the way back to my apartment block, gathering my thoughts and returning to the state of mind I had created for myself. I was very lucky to make it through Centennial Park that day, and I know there is a God above who has always showered his blessings on me all my life.

That incident made me more focused. I had a determination that went beyond what had propelled me when I just played for myself. I actually believed I could beat Andre Agassi in the semi- finals. I had two set points in the first set, but Andre hit one of the most unexpected backhand returns that zoomed past me and actually snapped the tendon between my wrist and elbow. I kept playing but lost, knowing that I was in big trouble. Until the Barcelona Games, the losing semi-finalists had won bronze medals, but they had changed the rules for Atlanta. I had a playoff for the medal.

I put my wrist in a cast for twenty-four hours and beat one of my dear friends, Fernando Meligeni, in a tough three-set match to win the medal I had wanted ever since I was seven or eight years old. It was all about mind over matter, and perseverance. I had always wanted to emulate my father and win an Olympic medal for India, and it came down to that one match.

Excerpted from My Olympic Journey: 50 of India’s Leading Sportspersons on the Biggest Test of their Career, by Digvijay Singh Deo and Amit Bose

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